Saint Nicholas, or Nikolaos, was born around 280 in Patara, Lycia (in modern-day Turkey) to Christian parents who raised him in the faith. When he was still young, he lost his parents and was sent to live with his uncle, a Bishop, who continued his education in the Church. Eventually, Nicholas was ordained as a priest. At his parents’ deaths, Nicholas gained an inheritance, which he decided to use to aid others. One such occasion presented itself when Nicholas heard of a man from his hometown who did not have the money to pay for his daughters’ dowries. The end result of this situation would have been to send his daughters into prostitution, but Nicholas heard about it first. Secretly, he took little bags of his money and threw them through the window of the man’s home. He did this for all three girls and all three were married. But for the third daughter, the father kept watch and caught Nicholas, thanking him for his generosity. This is likely one of the more commonly known stories about Nicholas.
A lessor-known account is on how he became a Bishop. After going on pilgramage, he visited a town near his home called Myra. Unbeknownst to him, the previous Bishop had died and, as the townspeople had decided the next priest to come there would be bishop, Nicholas was called to succeed him. It is assumed that during his time as Bishop of Myra, Nicholas stopped the execution of three innocent men. He was also said to have been imprisoned and tortured under the reign of Diocletian during the great and last persecution. Constantine is to have freed him, at which point he returned to his post at Myra.
One of the most entertaining stories about Nicholas, though, comes from the First Council of Nicaea. This was the council that was called to denounce the heresy of Arius and that lead to the Nicene Creed. Though some doubt whether Nicholas was actually in attendance, the story goes that our charitable Nicholas slapped an Arian in the face during the meeting. Over time, this changed to Arius himself being slapped. But did Nicholas actually do it? And if he did, was it a physical altercation? Perhaps we will never know. He was certainly an oppoenant to Arianism. Regardless, the contrast of this story with jolly Santa Claus is hilarious!
Nicholas went to be with the Lord in 343 on December 6, now his feast day, and was buried in Myra. His sarcophagus can still be seen in St. Nicholas Church in Demre, modern-day Myra; both church and sarcophagus were built 200 years after his death. However, in 1087, his remains were brought to Bari, Italy, and moved to the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. His bones became relics, cherished and taken by many. Yet some have been found and some of his remains have been essentially identified. To this day, he is venerated across the world, but especially in Europe.
And this leads us to the important question: How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? To begin, St. Nicholas, as a venerated saint, was the patron saint of many places and things, including sailors, merchants, the falsely accused, and of course children, among “near everything” as one author wrote. His feast day was placed on the day of his death, December 6th. Because of the story of secret giving, people, and especially children, would put their shoes out for him to put a coin into. Nuns in the Medieval Period took this opportunity to give gifts to the poor. More often than not, if gifts were given on or on the eve of his feast day, they were given to children.
The name and date became most popular in the Netherlands with Sinterklaas, and it is here we find the strongest connection to Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas. The Middle Dutch name was Sinter Niklaas, or Saint Nicholas. This figure, based on the Saint Nicholas, was dressed in a Bishop’s garb, rode a white horse, and brought gifts to children (with the help of parents, of course). Later in history, he was said to come from Spain to deliver gifts to the Dutch children. Because parts of the Stinterklaas traditions are similar to those surrounding Odin and the Wild Hunt, some people claim that these first celebrations tried to combine the old, familiar traditions with the Christian Feast Day and its traditions. Another combined character, apparently influenced by the Spanish and Arabs, was Swarte Piet, a man with a darker complexion (either naturally or from soot) who brought gifts to good children through a chimney. The Sinterklaas feast, however, became most popular in the Middle Ages. Similar gift-giving tradtions were common across Europe. Even so, these festivities were not connected to Christmas.
Yet St. Nick’s day and the praise brought to him was not beloved by all. During the Reformation, people like Martin Luther decided that it would be best to take the focus off of the patron saint (and any saint in particular) and move it to the Christ child on the eve of His birth. This date was already being celebrated and had been celebrated since at least the 3rd or 4th century. The character to replace Nicholas was known as the Christkind, the Christ Child, who brought gifts to children on the eve of Christ’s birth. He was portrayed as a small child in a white dress, if seen at all. This name was Christkindel in German, the origin for Kris Kringle in English, which was introduced to the U.S after the mid-1800’s. Despite the efforts of Protestants, the change of date and character did little to put the focus on Christ rather than on saints or pagan practices. The Christkind eventually became more a sprite-like figure that joined St. Nick in giving gifts.
St. Nick was truly made popular by Dutch immigrants in New Amsterdam and New York with Sinterklaas. In fact, a street named after the patron saint can still be found there today. These immigrants brought the traditions from their country to the New World, where Christmas was largely uncelebrated. The character of Sinterklaas was combined with the English Father Christmas, who seemed to have originated in the mid-1600’s, but the former name stuck. The name Santa Claus first appeared in a 1773 American publication. He also appeared in other works by American authors. Yet like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, he appeared in a green cloak and looked more like a Dutch Sailor rather than a Bishop.
The name and character of Saint Nicholas was not set in stone, however, and dear old St. Nick continued to change. He was called Santeclaus in a poem that included reindeer, a sleigh, and presents. The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, which most know from the first line as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, gave rise to many of the depictions of Santa Claus, though he was still called and known as Saint Nicholas at this point in the early 1800’s. Clearly, the story, character, and appearance of Saint Nicholas has changed over the centuries from a Bishop of Myra to a jolly gift-giver. But in short, he is a combination of the patron saint, Father Christmas, and the Christkind. The character of Santa Claus would continue to change over the next couple of centuries in the U.S. and around the world. With time, Santa donned a red coat, became rather plump, moved very far north, and gained a wife.
Despite efforts to do otherwise, Old St. Nick has become something of a central figure for Christmas, even past his feast day. But what would Nicholas say today? It is hard to tell as his writings appear to have not survived. But what we do know of this favored man tells us this: He was a generous man who sought mercy, defended the Trinity, cared for the little ones, and served Christ faithfully. While St. Nick should not be held in higher esteem than Christ, there is little wonder why Nicholas is favored and beloved in the minds and heart of many.
Blessings to you and yours,